Digital Collections and Digital Preservation

I found the readings this week quite interesting.  One question I would love to discuss with those more knowledgeable than I is if there are new and improved search capabilities being developed right along with the efforts to collect and preserve ever greater amounts of digital information?  I ask this because where I work, at the Naval History & Heritage Command (NHHC), we have a huge problem in our archives with storage, retrieval and use of digital/digitized information.

For instance, every ship, command, shore station, fleet, etc. in the U.S. Navy is (supposed) to submit a yearly history to the NHHC archives for permanent retention.  Up until around 1992 these were submitted on paper and we have excellent records for historical use.  Researchers and historians can look at histories written in the middle of the Second World War by Nimitz, Halsey, etc.  Sometimes they even have hand written comments in the margins which is just fabulous.  Around 1992 the navy required that the histories be sent electronically in order to save paper.  Of course now we have thousands of floppy disks, CDs, etc. with the histories all written in software that isn’t even around any more (nothing as simple as Microsoft Word).  Basically the floppy disks and CDs are dying and even if the media is still ok a lot of the information is not readable because we no longer have the software to view the text.

Now the histories are submitted via email and are fairly quickly digitally archived and accessible.  I just wonder if the years from 1992ish thru 2000ish will be seen as a historical black hole for a lot of information.  We have all this info in outdated formats and sure, it could probably be all converted to current web-based technology, but that’s never going to happen at least where I work because no one has the money to pay a contractor to convert this stuff (and God knows we couldn’t go back to Congress and ask for supplemental funding in the current climate).

Getting back to my original question, Cohen, Brennan, and Kelly all talk about the amount of data that can easily stored now.  That is wonderful but at some point how will a historian be able to deal with all the information?  Think of the biographer in 50 years who wants to write about Obama.  Just the number of emails saved from his 4 or 8 year tenure a president would be incredible.  So, will there be improved search capabilities to go along with the astronomical increase in information?

I guess if you are an 18th century historian you can curse the fact that there isn’t always extant records or perhaps celebrate it!

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One response to “Digital Collections and Digital Preservation

  1. Sympathies for the inaccessible data – I hope you all find a way to retrieve it at some point.

    I also wonder how future historians will deal with all the material left by a modern politician. Just sifting through the papers of Washington or Madison is a challenge in itself. I wonder how much searching, like you mention, will be used, or future historians will go for some sort of algorithmic text function – ” ‘job creation’ is mentioned 14,591 times in Obama’s correspondence for the third quarter of 2011″ or something like that.

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